Maples for Autumn Colour
As the weather cools in late summer and the days shorten noticeably so the deciduous trees and shrubs begin to withdraw chlorophyll from their leaves in preparation for the winter shutdown. With less of that vital green pigment to mask them, the other colours within the leaves begin to show through. While the best of the autumn color may be over for this year, the coming winter months are the time to consider how best to prepare for next years autumn glory.
When it comes to the most vibrant tones, the genus Acer, the maples, includes many sterling contributors. Most of the 150-odd species of maples are deciduous trees, though some are shrubby and a few are evergreen. Acer is primarily a temperate northern hemisphere genus, ranging from around 59°N southwards to the mountains of the subtropics. With the exception of a few Eurasian species, principally the Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and the Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), most of our garden maples are derived from Asian and North American species.
Maples do flower, but apart from a few with showy tassel-like blooms, most are grown solely as foliage plants, And while the thrust of this article is about autumn colour, many of the best autumn maples are also excellent spring and summer foliage plants.
Of course, getting good autumn colours depends greatly on the climate and the shades vary from year to year even in districts known for their autumn foliage. Generally the best colours develop during a prolonged autumn with warm, still days and cool but not freezing nights. Soon after the first frosts strike the last leaves fall.
Although most maples colour to some extent in autumn, the following species and their cultivars are readily available and among the brightest and most reliable.
The Golden Full-moon Maple (Acer japonicum var. aureum) has rounded lime green spring leaves that become yellow as they mature then turn golden and red in autumn. It is now more properly known as Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'.
Regardless of its preference for cool, humid conditions and a tendency to develop die-back, the Japanese maple is nearly everyone's favourite small tree. The autumn foliage colour of the purple- or red-leaved forms is usually just a more intense shade of the summer colour, while those with green to pale gold leaves develop shades of red, orange, gold and yellow.
For autumn colour consider: 'Bloodgood', deep red; 'Aureum', deep gold; 'Beni Kagami', bright red; 'Hessei', red; 'Dissectum', bright orange; 'Dissectum Atropurpureum', red; 'Linearilobum Atropurpureum', bronze; and 'Linearilobum Rubrum' bright red.
Cultivation tipsExcept for a few species, maples are generally very hardy. They prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil with plenty of humus. For the best autumn tones plant in a sunny position but try to provide good wind protection, at least for young plants and Japanese maples, or the foliage may burn or fall before it has a chance to colour well.
Maples respond well to light winter pruning when young and are best shaped to a fairly round crown on a sturdy trunk. Some, such as Acer palmatum, tend to be fairly shrubby with low forking and these are best left to develop naturally.
Even though the exact autumn shades are difficult to predict and will vary from year to year, you won't go far wrong with maples. They're beautiful enough in any season to forgive them their vagaries.
Did you know?It takes around 43 litres of Acer saccharum sap to produce 1 litre of maple syrup. A good sized sugar maple yields around 50 litres of sap and during the processing into syrup the sugar concentration rises from 2% to 66%. No wonder it's so sweet, but what a flavour!
I am a garden book author and horticultural photographer based in Christchurch, New Zealand. I run a stock photo library called Country, Farm and Garden (http://www.cfgphoto.com). This article may be re-published provided this information is published with it and is clearly visible.
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